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More than 1,000 same-sex couples who were married in Utah during a brief period when such unions were legal had been counting down to the moment they could apply for in-state spousal benefits.
Last month, a federal judge ruled that would be this coming Monday.
But now the couples have more waiting to do.
Less than 24 hours after the state announced its intent to fight U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball's ruling which ordered Utah to honor and recognize all same-sex marriages performed in the state the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday halted any movement toward marriage recognition.
"There is not a day that goes by that we don't think or talk about what it would be like to have a child complete our family. We had a countdown going. That's why this felt so disappointing. It's painful and personal," said plaintiff Marina Gomberg, who married her wife Elenor Heyborne in December. "We've been together for almost 10 years. Another couple days or weeks of waiting is something we can handle."
The federal appeals court issued a stopgap Thursday that prevents any same-sex couples from applying for marriage benefits in Utah until the court has had a chance to examine the merits of the state's request for a permanent stay.
A panel of three federal judges in Denver will decide whether a permanent stay that would be in effect until the Evans v. Utah appeal is resolved is merited in this case.
If such a stay is imposed, the more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples whose marriages were issued and solemnized in Utah will continue living in the "legal limbo" of not knowing whether their marriages are, or will be, recognized under Utah law.
If the appeals court denies the state's request, married same-sex couples may begin applying for spousal benefits immediately.
To receive a permanent stay from the 10th Circuit, Utah will have to convince the court the stay is necessary to maintain order and also that Utah has a high chance of likelihood on appeal.
It's a high bar to clear, said American Civil Liberties Union attorney John Mejía, who represents the four plaintiff couples in this case.
"We're very confident we'll prevail," Mejía said. "The judge didn't make any serious errors in his reasoning. As far as the state is concerned, the only error he made was disagreeing with them."
In a brief filed with the 10th Circuit, the state argued the need for a stay is "self evident."
The attorney general's office also noted that the question of whether same-sex marriages, which were performed in Utah after U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby's historic Dec. 20 ruling allowed such unions for a period of 17 days, are legal is already pending before the Utah Supreme Court.
The state's highest court has been asked to decide whether same-sex adoptions and by extension the marriages of same-sex couples are legal under Utah law. Adoption is one of numerous legal benefits married couples are entitled to under Utah law, but the issue is front and center in the state's request for a permanent freeze on spousal benefits for gay and lesbian couples.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes expressed a desire Thursday for the "highest courts" in the land to weigh in on the legality of same-sex couples' marriages.
"No one on our team takes any pleasure in prolonging the legal process," Reyes told The Tribune in a written statement. "But we know it is our duty to make sure the highest courts are able to address all these related issues at once and with certainty."
Earlier in the day Thursday, the attorney general said that the state had little choice in appealing Kimball's ruling.
If they didn't, Reyes said, same-sex couples and their families could become ensnared in further chaos should the state's ban on same-sex unions be reinstated.
The state filed a notice of appeal on Wednesday.
Reyes said the decision to appeal was predicated on the same desire for clarity Utah has touted for months.
"Any decision by the highest courts that results in undoing what the District Court has granted could be more disruptive than awaiting certainty and finality," Reyes said in the statement. "The State looks forward to the day when these issues are resolved and Utah, along with its citizens, have certainty and a clear understanding of the law."
Reyes said that given the uncertain future of Utah's embattled ban on same-sex marriage after the state's voter-approved Amendment 3 was declared unconstitutional by Judge Shelby, it was appealed to the 10th Circuit Court, which could rule any day now it would be premature to start doling out rights to married same-sex couples.
It is the state's belief, Reyes said, that if Utah's same-sex marriage ban were to be reinstated by the appeals court or, eventually, the Supreme Court, the couples who were married in the 17-day window could, again, be forced to live in a limbo of uncertainty.
"If it were somehow possible, an immediate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on all issues in question, would be welcomed by the State," Reyes said. "In the absence of that, the State will continue to consider every avenue to further the legal process as expeditiously as possible while asking the Courts to stay further action until the ultimate questions regarding recognition of marriage and constitutionality of Utah law can be answered with finality."
Mejía and same-sex marriage advocates argue that logic misses the point of Kimball's ruling.
"It's just a basic concept of fairness that when you're married legally under state law, the state has to recognize that union," Mejía said. "The notion that these are somehow temporary marriages or marriages that could disappear when a panel of judges decides a separate case, that logic doesn't stand much of a chance."